Searching for an equaliser: How legislation boosted US women’s football

In 1972, the US Government introduced Title IX, which prohibits federally-funded institutions such as schools from discriminating against students or employees based on sex. This means any school that receives federal money must provide fair and equal treatment of the sexes in all areas, including sport. Alan Story investigates how this legislation provided a boost for women’s football in the US and how far we still have to go to achieve full equality.

Alan Story

In an era when the twinned notions of “let the market decide” and “reduce regulation” are so widely promoted by right-wing ideologues, it's occasionally helpful to remind ourselves of the ongoing value of state regulation and of legislation banning discrimination. To make that point, we need look no further than the success achieved by the United States team in the FIFA Women's World Cup. 

The US women's team has won more World Cups than any other team, has consistently topped the FIFA world rankings for the last 11 years (except 2015) and is the current defending champion. And while the US was tested by Spain in a match on Monday evening, commentators still predict the US will win a fourth World Cup at a global tournament being held in France that is attracting record television audiences. (The night before, 6.9 million viewers watched on BBC One as England beat Cameroon 3-0. That's 40.5 per cent of the available audience and the most people to ever watch a women's football match in British history.)  

So what explains the long-term record of the US women's team? There are many factors. The fact that the US is the third largest country by population and is such a rich country help explain, in part, why it has been such a success story since the inaugural Women's World Cup of 1991. Yet, by comparison, the US men's football team has been decidedly average over the years. So a large population and high per capita income aren’t decisive explanations for the achievement of US women footballers.   

Moreover, football – or ‘soccer’ as it is called in North America – is far down the pecking order of US professional sports; it trails behind American football, baseball, basketball, and even ice hockey. When I was a teenager growing up in Canada in the 1960s, football was very definitely a minor sport mostly played by boys who couldn’t make other teams. I honestly don't remember ever seeing a girl or a woman even kick a football when I was growing up.

Legislating for equality

The decisive year for the participation and dramatically increased performance by US female athletes, both girls and women, came in 1972. That's when the US Government enacted what was called Title IX. Title IX prohibits federally-funded institutions from discriminating against students or employees based on sex. As a result of Title IX, any school that receives any federal money from elementary school to university level – that is, nearly all US schools – must provide fair and equal treatment of the sexes in all areas, including athletics and, even more critically, in employment. 

A few statistics tell the before and after athletics story of Title IX regulations. Before Title IX, one in 27 girls played sports in the USA. By 2016, that number was two in five. “Since 1972, thanks to increased funding and institutional opportunities, there has been a 545 per cent increase in the percentage of women playing college sports and a 990 per cent increase in the percentage of women playing high school sport,” Donna de Varona, first president of the US-based Women’s Sports Foundation, has written. Her article was headlined: ‘Amazing things happen when you give female athletes the same funding as men’. (But as you will read towards the end of this article, discrimination against US women footballers carries on in many other ways.)  

Commentators, football experts and feminists on both sides of the Atlantic agree on the continuing importance of Title IX. “It was an equal opportunity law and it provided a huge opening to women athletes that is still being felt,” Douglas Strachan, a former professional footballer in France, now a physics professor and a coach of youth football teams in Lexington, Kentucky, told Green World

Chris Paouros, member of the Fans for Diversity group, an elected member of the Women’s Equality Party steering committee and a supporter of Tottenham Hotspur, added: “When you invest in infrastructure and in better coaches, when you invest in all of your children, it becomes a great stimulus for developing talent by both boys and girls.”

Last year, she wrote what she called a “story of shame” about English women’s football after some Crystal Palace Ladies players were told they would no longer be able to play for the team if they could not raise sponsorship money of £250 or pay the money from their own pockets. 

A long way to go

While women’s football is said to be the fastest growing participation in the UK and the women’s professional game is now getting more media profile, a recent Sport England Active Lives survey revealed that just 200,000 women aged over 16 play football regularly (at least twice in the last 28 days) compared to 1,800,000 men aged over 16. 

An April 2018 survey, entitled ‘The UK’s attitudes towards women in sport’, revealed that the prize money for professional women footballers was £561,000 compared to £22,075,000 for men footballers. In an understatement about this 40-fold difference, the report concluded ‘sexism is still rife in the competitive sport industry’ and ‘with football being the chief culprit’. 

And in all professional sports around the world, a Global Sports Salary Survey of 2017 showed that ‘not only are there far fewer opportunities for women to make a living wage from professional sport, but those that do earn only about one hundredth of the sums their male counterparts pull in’. 

In Kentucky, Strachan coaches lots of young girls and boys and says that a football system designed for girls needs to make sure there is an incentive for girls to keep playing beyond the age of 12. Mind you, Strachan is no cheerleader for the US collegiate athletics system, which is, bluntly, a huge capitalist money-making machine. And obscenely profitable US-style football of the Dallas Cowboys versus San Francisco 49ers variety “is the most sexist sport in the entire world,” concludes Strachan. 

Title IX of 1972 requirements were a follow-up to US civil rights legislation of the 1960s – won after decades of struggles, lynchings, bus boycotts, and mammoth regular rallies – that improved, however partially, the legal position of African Americans. The women’s liberation movement on both sides of the Atlantic itself sprang forth in the late 1960s. Juliet Mitchell’s pioneering article ‘Women: The Longest Revolution’ was published in 1966 in the UK by the New Left Review

The exact words of Title IX are: ‘No person the United States shall on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.’ 

It led to huge increases and improvements in the facilities and coaching available for US women athletes in coming decades. There has been more than a five-fold increase in the number of US college women athletes up until today. 

Often offering scholarships, US colleges and universities have become training magnets for women athletes around the world. Nearly 40 years after Title IX came into force, its effect is still being felt by many teams playing at the current Women’s World Cup. US college-educated internationals are playing prominent roles in the squads of Canada, Chile, Jamaica, New Zealand, Nigeria, Scotland, Spain, Thailand and other countries. When Canada played New Zealand in the first round, 14 of the 22 starters had been educated at US colleges and universities. 

Yet back at home in April 2019, all 28 members of the current US National Women’s Soccer team filed a discrimination lawsuit against the US Soccer Federation. They have been fighting for gender and pay equality for years. 

Anyone who knows the first thing about football – or soccer – knows that the US women’s team has had a far superior impact globally than the US men’s team. Says Paouros with a chuckle: “The 13 goals that the US women’s team scored against Thailand in a single match in the first round of this world cup are more goals than the US men’s team have scored in their entire two previous world cup tournaments.”   

None of us should count on Donald Trump to intervene in that lawsuit… or at least on the right side.

Alan Story is a member of the Sheffield Green Party and regular contributor to Green World.